When we envision a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq, an Army public affairs officer toiling over a press release probably isn’t the figure that first comes to mind.
But that’s the perspective author David Abrams, a Butte resident and 20-year Army veteran, offers up in his satiric, debut novel “Fobbit,” which made the 2012 New York Times Notable Book List.
The novel, which has been compared to the television series “M*A*S*H” in theme, deals with a public affairs soldier, Chance Gooding Jr., and his compatriots as they toil through daily life at Triumph, a fictitious Forward Operating Base in Baghdad.
On a recent afternoon, Abrams, who works for the Montana Bureau of Land Management, made a visit to Capital High, where he spoke with students about his book, his experiences in Iraq and what it took to become a published novelist.
“I would call this book almost verging on a cartoon. It’s pretty exaggerated in a lot of places,” he said to about 20 students gathered in the Capital High Auditorium. “But I will say, without naming names, that I have worked for my share of buffoons.”
Abrams, who joined the Army in 1988 but did not serve in a combat zone until 2005, says he himself was a “Fobbit.”
The name, which purposefully rhymes with “Hobbit,” was given to soldiers of Abrams’ ilk — those who worked within the relatively safe confines of Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs — by the “door kicker” soldiers who worked and fought in the field.
The opening paragraph of “Fobbit,” which Abrams read to the students, sums up the kind of work he did while in Iraq and the reputation he and his cohorts had:
“They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center. They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph. If the FOB was a mother’s skirt, then these soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp.”
“If you go onto discussion boards or chat rooms or whatever, you’ll find a lot of scorn for ‘Fobbits,’” Abrams said. “(It’s) not necessarily a good thing to be called these days.”
While in Iraq, Abrams kept an extensive journal, even though he worked 10-12 hour days. Every night he would grab some “chow” and go to his “hooch” — or trailer — and chronicle the events of the day.
Within a couple of months of arriving in Iraq, Abrams published some of his journal entries on a writers’ blog where a literary agent spotted his work and partnered with the author.
By that time, a slew of Iraq war memoirs had been written or were in the works, so the two determined that a novel with Abrams’ unique perspective was what the world needed, Abrams said.
He left Iraq in 2006 with roughly 100 pages of single-spaced notes and started working on his novel.
He had a draft nearly 800 pages long ready for his agent at the end of 2010. They worked on the draft until the summer of 2011, at which time his agent started sending the book out to editors.
A first-time editor with new York-based Grove/Atlantic took on the book in September 2011 and “Fobbit” was published a year later.
Through the editing process, “Fobbit” slimed down to fewer than 400 pages.
Although the book was published late last year, it quickly climbed through the rank and file of new fiction, garnering praise from the Washington Post and New York Times Book Review.
“I applaud David Abrams for sticking to his vision and writing the satire he wanted to write instead of adding to the crowded shelf of war memoirs,” wrote Christian Bauman in his review of the novel for The New York Times Book Review. “In ‘Fobbit,’ he has written a very funny book, as funny, disturbing, heartbreaking and ridiculous as war itself.”
The book was published in paperback in North America. In April, “Fobbit” will be published in the U.K. in hardback.
But Abrams isn’t slowing down — he’s already working toward the publication of another novel.
“It’s 180 degrees different in plot, but it’s still a comedy,” Abrams said of his forthcoming book. “It’s about a little person … who gets a job as a stunt man for a child actor in Hollywood in the 1940s.”
Taking time to write every day is critical for success as an author — you can’t wait for the moment of inspiration, he says.
“For me that’s 3:30; every morning I get up and do my writing,” Abrams said.
Aside from that commitment, he says there are two secrets to writing:
“That’s applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and then applying the fingertip to the keyboard.”